ATLANTA ― Penn swimmer Lia Thomas tied for fifth in the 200-yard freestyle at the NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championships on Friday.
Thomas, a transgender woman, touched the wall in 1 minute, 43.40 seconds, about two seconds off her personal best.
Her time tied with Kentucky senior Riley Gaines. Stanford junior and Canadian Olympian Taylor Ruck won first, earning the title of national champion and breaking the pool record at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center in the process.
It was an unexpected turn in the week, as Thomas entered the race with the nation’s top time among collegiate women in the 200-yard freestyle this season. Ruck now holds that title.
Thomas finished two-tenths of a second behind Ruck in the prelims Friday morning, and entered the finals seeded second.
Thomas’ fifth-place award follows her historic win Thursday in the 500-yard freestyle, when she became the first trans athlete and the first Penn women’s swimmer to win a Division I national championship.
Thomas, a fifth-year senior in her first season on the Penn women’s swim team, has been at the center of a debate on trans women’s rights to play sports. Thomas’ detractors claim her male-at-birth assignment gives her an unfair biological advantage, while Thomas’ supporters maintain she’s fully compliant with the NCAA’s regulations for trans athletes, and should be allowed to compete.
Ahead of the race, Taylor Ruck’s mother, Sophia Ruck, expressed support for Thomas, and said that she sees her competing as a “positive way for [Taylor] to be the best that she can be.”
She said she holds respect for Thomas and all the swimmers competing here this week, and has tried to empathize with Thomas’ personal and athletic journey, and the opposition she’s faced along the way.
“I have a son – Taylor has a brother – and if he were going through the same thing, I would hope that people could be supportive and cheer and love,” said Ruck, who’s originally from Canada but now lives in Phoenix.
She said that at some point, the NCAA does need to provide clearer guidance on eligibility, but that this week, what matters is treating Thomas with respect.
“In my heart, the biggest thing is empathy and love, and so at the end of the day, that’s all we have is our legacy and how we treated people. And what do people remember you for? It’s that – it’s not the accolades and awards. So, whatever that takes as a swimming community to create that environment, I think we need to explore it and with respect for all swimmers.”
She said that she hasn’t spoken with Taylor about the subject, and that her daughter has just tried to focus on her races.
In the instance that Taylor did lose to Thomas Friday, she said her feelings wouldn’t change.
“Whatever makes her happy,” she said of her daughter. “If she had fun and she did what she came to do, I’m happy.”
Opposition to Thomas’ participation was quieter outside McAuley Aquatic Center on a rainy Friday compared to the first day of the championships. Metal barriers were erected along the sidewalk to keep the entrance walkway clear.
A small group of protesters with the group Save Women’s Sports sat in the stands, holding up signs when Thomas walked onto the deck for the finals race.
After the race, Beth Stelzer, founder of Save Women’s Sports, said her opposition to Thomas competing didn’t waver.
“Just because someone doesn’t win every event doesn’t mean they should have a right to compete,” she said.
“How many girls did [Thomas] beat and displace to get here?” she said.
Thomas did have supporters in the stands. One spectator held up a trans pride flag. Thomas smiled and waved to them as she exited the pool deck after her preliminary race Friday morning.
University of Texas freshman and Olympian Erica Sullivan, who placed third behind Thomas in Thursday’s event, also published an op-ed Friday morning declaring her support of Thomas.
“Like anyone else in this sport, Lia doesn’t win every time. And when she does, she deserves, like anyone else in this sport, to be celebrated for her hard-won success, not labeled a cheater simply because of her identity,” Sullivan wrote.
Thomas is scheduled to swim in the 100-yard freestyle on Saturday, the final day of NCAA competition. Her fellow Penn swimmers Catherine Buroker and Anna Kalandadze will compete in the 1,650-yard freestyle.